The Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán, 天坛), completed in 1420 during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle, was the most sacred space in which the emperor—also known as the Son of Heaven—performed the most important sacrifices and rites.
The gods of earth, water, war, and civilian affairs were all honored, but it was the god of agriculture who received special attention. On the winter solstice, the emperor, after ritual fasts and purification, would beseech Heaven for bountiful harvests.
The temple's layout reflects the Confucian worldview that anchored the imperial order. The square base represents Earth, the circular temple represents Heaven, and the emperor symbolically serves as intermediary between human beings and the divine order.
The most distinctive temple in the complex, and one of the most famous buildings in China is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qínián Diàn, 祈年殿), which sits at the end of a stately set of subordinate structures—the Round Altar (Yuánqiū Tán, 圜丘坛), the Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huáng Qióngyǔ, 皇穹宇) and Echo Wall (Huíyīn Bì, 回音壁)—aligned on a north-south axis in line with the Forbidden City to the north.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests meets visitors at their final approach with a sublime dignity, rising in perfect circular form from a three-tiered stone base. The temple structure itself is painted in rich hues and capped at the apex of its conical blue-tiled roof by a golden ball.
If you catch the building on the right day at the right time—early morning or as dusk approaches—sunlight illuminates it, creating the illusion of an internal glow. At such a moment, it doesn't take much to imagine the richly robed emperor ascending the steps of the Round Altar to take the Throne of Heaven.
The Throne is gone, as are the imperial days—the Temple has been open to the public since 1912 and the revolution that dispensed with the Qing Dynasty—but it's still possible to feel why so many Chinese believed for so long that this was the center of the world.
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